From Team To League, Congress Members Shift Pressure On Skins

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The Washington Redskins organization has been criticized for years over its name. Now, the National Football League is feeling the pressure, too — this time from a Democratic senator and a Republican member of the House.


For years, Native Americans and others have criticized the Washington Redskins football team for having a name, they say, is offensive. Well now, the National Football League is feeling the pressure too. As NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, two members of Congress are demanding that the NFL take a formal position in support of a name change.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Normally, Republican Congressman Tom Cole is a mainstream conservative. He usually prefers leaving businesses alone. But for Cole, who's a Native American, when it comes to one business, he feels he needs to take a stand with Washington, D.C.'s NFL franchise.

REPRESENTATIVE TOM COLE: It's largely based on just a lack of empathy or understanding of what the consequences of the name are. I don't think people try to be deliberately insulting. They ought to recognize that people that oppose the name aren't trying to be insulting either.

CHANG: This week, Cole and Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington state sent a letter to the NFL insisting that it formally tell the team to change its name. They also admonished NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for defending the Redskins like this at a press conference before the Super Bowl.

ROGER GOODELL: Let me remind you. This is a name of a football team, a football team that's had that name for 80 years and has presented the name in a way that has honored Native Americans.

CHANG: Honored. That was the word that really angered many Native American groups.

JACQUELINE PATA: There was a time period where there were bounties actually offered for skinning Indians.

CHANG: Jackie Pata is executive director of the National Congress of American Indians.

PATA: We can create a win-win. I think their fan base wants to find a solution to this. And unfortunately, until it starts addressing and impacting them financially, I don't think that we will see them changing their position.

CHANG: Senator Cantwell wants to apply that financial pressure. Turns out through some savvy lobbying, the NFL became a tax-exempt organization. It's a 501(c)(6) nonprofit because it's classified as a business league. Neither Major League Baseball nor the National Basketball Association enjoys that status. And Cantwell says she's going to push legislation to make sure the NFL doesn't either.

SENATOR MARIA CANTWELL: The issue of tax reform and tax breaks to interests that may not deserve them has been the issue du jour almost every day. And certainly here's an example of an organization where their CEO makes $30 million a year, they get 160 million in tax breaks - supposedly for education purposes - and yet they endorse using a racial slur.

CHANG: What do the Redskins think of Cantwell and Cole's angry letter? In a written statement, the team's spokesman wrote: With all the important issues Congress has to deal with, such as a war in Afghanistan to deficits to health care, don't they have more important issues to worry about than a football team's name? The letter then notes, given the fact that the name of Oklahoma means red people in Choctaw, this request is a little ironic. Cole, who's from Oklahoma, was not impressed.

COLE: Really? You know, that was an Indian word coined by Indians to honor tribes as we were becoming a state. In this case, the moniker of the Washington football team was coined by white people, it's a derogatory term to Native Americans.

CHANG: Months ago, President Obama said if he were the team owner, he'd think about changing the name, too. And now, even some prominent sportswriters, including Peter King at Sports Illustrated, are refusing to use the official Washington football team name in their coverage. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.

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